Investigators have determined that the leakage of of 20,000 tons of diesel (about 150,000 barrels) from a reservoir at a power plant in Russia’s Far North was caused by damage from thawing permafrost — just the latest sign of the catastrophic effects climate change is having in the Arctic.
“Entire cities and roads were built on permafrost,” said Guido Grosse, head of the permafrost research unit at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Potsdam, Germany. “When permafrost thaws, the ice deep in the ground that has been there for thousands of years melts, and you lose stability. That has an impact on infrastructure.”
Infrastructure in Siberia, northern Canada and Alaska is usually built on pillars that stand on top of the permafrost. With temperatures rising at twice the global average rate in the Arctic Circle, the frozen ground is thawing and causing cracks in roads and buildings.
About half of Russia, the world’s largest country, is covered with permafrost. But while Russian scientists have developed ways to refreeze the ground in cases where structural stability is at stake, they lag North America in preparing for a future with no permafrost at all.
Many of Russia’s settlements in the Far North are shrinking as harsh conditions and economic isolation drive people to leave. Vorkuta, a former gulag coal mine set up by Joseph Stalin and the country’s third-biggest city in the Arctic Circle, has lost more than half of its population since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
MMC Norilsk Nickel PJSC — a Russian metals mining company named after an Arctic city so isolated that residents refer to the rest of Russia as the mainland — is the parent company of the power plant responsible for the leaking diesel reservoir. President Vladimir Putin on Friday chastised Norilsk Nickel’s billionaire owner, Vladimir Potanin, for failing to upgrade the 30-year-old tank before the leak and ordered authorities to review the condition of similar facilities around the country.
The spill, which Potanin estimates will cost his company at least 10 billion rubles ($146 million) to clean up, is the largest ever in the Arctic region, according to Greenpeace. The environmental group likened it to the Exxon Valdez accident in 1989, when 37,000 tons of crude oil leaked from an oil tanker off the coast of Alaska.
The spill has been contained and some 200 tons of fuel have been collected, Emergencies Minister Yevgeny Zinichev said Friday.
Cleaning the area won’t be easy and the accident will likely damage the permafrost over the longer term, according to Grosse. Diesel lowers the freezing point for water, which could accelerate thawing even more, he said.
A heat wave in Siberia resulted in temperatures as high as 10 degrees Celsius above the May average in some areas, according to a report by Europe’s Copernicus Climate Change Service. The warm weather plus low precipitation have dried out vegetation earlier than usual and reignited fires still smoldering from last year.
Both the fires and the thawing are releasing hundreds of tons of carbon dioxide that has been entrapped in the tundra for thousands of years. Grosse estimates that 1,700 gigatons of carbon dioxide is trapped in permafrost, or twice the amount currently in the atmosphere.
“Permafrost contains organic matter that never decomposed, so when it thaws, that organic matter starts decomposing, bacteria eat it and in the process they release greenhouse gases, mainly methane and carbon dioxide,” Grosse said. “All of that accelerates global warming.”